Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Frank Miller look

Michael Wood's got a great piece about 300 at the LRB:

Still, however slow the movement and however brutal and self-righteous the culture being celebrated, the movie does have the benefit of its stark, memorialising visual style. The novelist and the moviemakers are not fascists; only in love with a fascist fantasy, and perhaps even in love only with its picture possibilities. There’s not much to be said for making a film based on a comic or a graphic novel if you don’t like the look of the comic or the novel, or more precisely if you don’t want something like the feel of draughtsmanship in your film, an effect that can seem both flattened-out generally and weirdly intense at moments. Fortunately, Snyder loves the Frank Miller look, and the film creates the sense of a fine dark dream, all sepia skies and stones and seas, brown palaces and dashes of bright red from the Spartan cloaks. The warriors’ helmets look like grim sculptures, ancient iron artefacts with gleaming eyes in them, and if you can bring yourself to stop wondering why the Spartans would insist on going into battle with so few clothes on – just helmet, sandals, shield and thong – the pumped-up bodies themselves look like archaeological toys, marching animated statues.

There’s one scene that isn’t in the book but effectively completes the book’s thought. The Persians have attacked a Greek city and all the inhabitants are gone. Then one of the Spartans says he has found them. A reverse angle shot shows us a perfect image, graphic art at its most static and most vivid: a tree that seems to be made up entirely of corpses, the way an Arcimboldo painting is made up of fruit. And at the end of the movie an overhead view shows us the Spartan dead lying on the ground in artistic confusion, like figures in a medieval French tapestry or a Japanese print. This copies an image in the book, but is better because it is larger, more closely defined and the colours sharper. Miller gets the credit for the composition; Snyder gets the credit for seeing what this would look like on a big screen.

And this is where the idea of memory returns. The film is too startlingly good-looking to be all bad news or all distasteful politics. And what is being commemorated here, at least in the images, so many years after the date, and so far away from the recording technologies of the ancient world, is not a crypto-Nazi version of the mythology of Sparta, but the practice of terminal fidelity to an idea of the unfaltering self. Herodotus picks out as especially brave a Spartan soldier who said, in answer to a Persian’s threat to hide the very sun by the sheer quantity of falling arrows, that in that case they would fight in the shade. The bravery here is in the wit rather than in pride or monomania, of course. The images of the film are far too monumental to be witty, but nevertheless they are stylish enough to suggest what a memorial can look like if the vanished get lucky.

Oh dear, I must confess that I secretly want to see this movie, I see so few that it would be really absurd for this to be one of them--I do suspect in fact that it's rather boring--but I've got an obsession with ancient Greece that's longstanding and a more recent one with muscles! Also it just sounds trashy in an enjoyable way. I had a very funny conversation with the trainer I work out with at the gym about the movie, he & his colleague were (rightly) scornful of the notion that those Spartans would have had twelve-packs like that. The fitness world on the whole seems rather taken with this 300 business, there are various 300 workouts online--I am tempted to try, though it is really a ludicrous notion.

On a related note, this is far and away the best fitness-related site I've found online. It's got a women's weight-lifting focus, but will repay investigation by anyone, male or female, who might be (for instance) toying with the idea of the unassisted pullup. And a recent link from there sent me to this quite amazing site about body-weight training feats. I think most of them are permanently beyond me, and yet it's intriguing to think about--yoga is a different way of arriving at some of this stuff--working on a handstand is the next project in yoga, I think (there you do that stuff up against a wall at first to practice, I can do a really solid headstand now which I never would have expected, only not yet ready to take it out into the middle of the room...)


  1. I rather liked this take.

    Only amateur fascists admire Sparta guys; they're still pissed off because people like me dared to warn them the Iraq war was going to be a disaster. Now the neocons have gone so over the deep end of delusional thinking that they've resorted to fantasizing about Sparta, where nobody ever argued, where everyone yelled and stabbed and otherwise kept their mouths shut.

    It's downright hilarious the way this movie punishes every smart character. Every time someone wants to argue with the war party in this movie, he's evil. Everybody who talks in a normal tone of voice is evil. Snyder shows two scenes where the Spartans murder Persian envoys arriving under a flag of truce. And both times, you're supposed to cheer.

    Since when do Americans cheer when truce parties are murdered? Well, that's pretty easy to answer, actually: since Iraq. These diehard neocons have gone insane because there's no way they can argue for an invasion of Iran any more. But they still want it, bad. So they've taken a crash course in fascism, jumping all the way to cheering for Sparta and booing for Athens - because Athens stands for brains and flexibility and talking things out. They can't win the argument, so they want to kill anybody who tries to argue. That's why Leonidas kicks the Persian envoy down a well.

    The film only approves of two things:

    1. Yelling

    2. Bashing.

    I say "bashing" because you can't call his view of military operations "strategy" or even "tactics." It's just close-ups of Leonidas's teeth while he yells about "freedom." He talks about "freedom" non-stop. I'm serious. A Spartan! Talking about freedom! Leonidas actually says, and this is a quote, "Freedom isn't free"! I thought I was back watching Team America: "Freedom isn't free/It costs a dollar ninety-three..."

  2. Boredom with spears might really be entertainment infinity. Yoga replicates physical fitness by stilling movement yet exercise remains movement so to speak, that always fascinates one.

    The Hood Company

  3. Well I secretly want to see this movie, too. I saw the DVD of Sin City after many years of not seeing movies aimed at adults, and I was shocked, repelled and fascinated. And, eventually, bored as it all went on for too long. If only it had been half the length.

  4. You are doing HEADSTAND?? And you didn't think this important enough to tell me in person??? I fall over in awe.